Improving customer experience is like eating healthy and exercising. Desire is not enough.

Culture change programs are hard to get going, and in most cases the change doesn’t stick. They’re about as likely to succeed as the pledge you made to "eat healthy and exercise” back January. Here’s why it’s so hard – and what you can do make CX change go deeper and last longer.

People can’t change what they don’t know they’re doing

Humans are creatures of habit. We put as many decisions as possible on autopilot because it saves mental energy. You’ve got better things to think about than how to brush your teeth, right? We need habits to survive, but if people don’t realize what they’re doing in a given moment how can they change?

They can’t. You have to jumpstart the process by making them aware of their own actions.

How people talk is a great place to start raising awareness. Everyone speaks, and our words shape our actions in powerful, unseen ways. Some CX leaders have used a “jargon jar” to get things going. They list some customer-unfriendly words they want people to avoid, and if an employee (any employee, even the CEO) says one they have to put money in the jar. You can also try the clothespin game, which works especially well in meetings. Give all the participants a clothespin to put on their lapel. If you hear someone say the “no-no” word for that meeting, take their clothespin and add it to your own lapel. Clothespins swap back and forth throughout the event, and whoever has the most at the end wins the game. Doing this will slow your discussion down for sure. But that’s the point.

Humans want multiple, conflicting things

Habits like using confusing jargon and eating sweets are bad habits, right? Not as far as your brain is concerned. All habits are good because they produce some kind of positive reward. That’s why they became habits in the first place. But the “reward” isn’t always what you think or want it to be. Even if you genuinely want to eat less sugar, you may still cave in and have that giant cookie. In that moment, you want one reward – an energy and serotonin boost – more than the other – avoiding type 2 diabetes.

Humans tend to go for instant gratification more often than delayed benefits, but not always. Think of an employee torn between obedience and customer-centricity. They may genuinely want to help a customer (helping boosts serotonin). But they also want to keep their job, so they grudgingly enforce policies they know make no sense, and they’re just as frustrated as customers at how absurd they are. When forced to choose, the long-term benefits of steady employment are more powerful than the short term satisfaction of meeting the customer’s needs.

The only way to deal with conflicting goals is to seek balance. It’s a problem all professionals face. Doctors try to give bad news with a mix of honesty and sensitivity, knowing the “right” mix varies by patient. Judges may be lenient with a first-time offender but give a harsh sentence to a career criminal for the same crime. That’s their job:to evaluate one specific situation and use their judgment to tailor decide what makes sense.

Customer-savvy business people do this, too. They know when to focus on building rapport and when to just solve the problem at hand. And they have a good read on what customers will think is “fair” or “reasonable.” L.L. Bean just tightened its famously lenient return policy because people were using it as a “lifetime product replacement program”, but customers don’t seem to mind too much. The new one-year return window is still generous by retail standards, and the firm says it’s still committed to finding “fair solutions” if product defects don’t show up until after that first year.

This ability to read a unique situation, see what’s important, and balance complex competing factors is called “practical wisdom”. As the word wisdom implies, it’s a skill that only comes with experience. Ritz Carlton fosters practical wisdom in employees by giving them the okay to spend up to $2000 per situation to resolve a customer issue. Employees are free to improvise, to make a judgement call about what the right resolution is in the moment. If someone misses the mark, which we all do eventually, leaders help that person reflect on and learn from their mistake instead of issuing a reprimand.

What worked before may not work now

Even seasoned employees can get it wrong, especially as customer expectations change. They are like my friend who used to be able to eat anything and not gain weight, but has realized that what he did in his 20s doesn’t work in your 40s. It’s no one’s fault. His habits weren’t “bad” per se. They just don’t match the reality, which is that like it or not the human metabolism slows down by 2% a year after age 25.

Companies have to adjust as my friend did, and real culture change requires a willingness to question everything. That attitude has fueled drastic CX improvement for Delta Airlines over the past five years. Former CEO Richard Anderson set the audacious goal of becoming the “no cancellation” airline, and made radical changes to operations – like buying a fuel refinery – to do it. Delta’s cancellation rate is, in fact, the lowest among US airlines and Delta recently earned the top spot the Wall Street Journal’s 2017 ranking of US airlines.

Few CEOs are willing to make that bold of a bet, in part because they don’t think they need to. As Harvard professor and world-renowned change expert John Kotter explains, even “a smart, sophisticated manager can be oblivious to the fact that two levels below him…is an organization so complacent that his dreams of the future will never be realized. That same manager can sometimes be just as oblivious to the fact that he too is being dangerously complacent.” As a CX leader, its your job to help managers see that things need to change. But rather than tell people, it's much better to engineer an opportunity for them to have their own epiphanies. Customer immersion sessions often have this effect; just asking why employees do something as they do – for your own education – can lead to an ah-ha moment. I did this with a group of executives recently and the impact was immediate. Not only did they find simple ways to streamline old, outdated processes, but several leaders told me that felt more empathy for peers after hearing about the challenges they face. 

Little things, done consistently, add up to big changes

None of these changes are easy. If they were, we’d all love broccoli as much as chocolate, run two miles a day, and have plenty socked away for retirement. You can make progress, but only by acknowledging the truth about human nature. Spend less time telling people why they need to change and more time creating situations that will help them see why they should do it. Your culture will shift in a way that is slow, but ultimately much more sustainable.